Brevity is the soul of wit, or so at least that's what Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet. In a musical landscape full of long-winded guitar solos, concert riders that read like Dostoevsky, and epic lyrical tales of melodramatic heartbreak, only a handful of bands can produce what The Weakerthans do with a few simple chords. That's all the Winnipeg, Manitoba-based foursome need to produce music with such empathetic earnestness it would make Eminem weep on his mother's shoulder. On Reconstruction Site, their most recent release on Epitaph Records, the band artfully combines intellectual and emotive pop with socially and politically conscious rock -- certainly not an easy task by any means. Lead singer and guitarist John K. Samson, is a meek soft-spoken man who pens lyrics drawn from classic French books, leftist literature, and lovelorn poems. I met with him at the Middle East in Cambridge, hours before their late October show. While people chatted loudly, background music blared, and bottles clanked at a high volume, Samson sat hunched at the bar reading a book and eating his dinner. What did you expect from the man who wrote a song from the perspective of cats? The song in question, "Plea From a Cat Named Virtue," is an example of a different songwriting method used to make the album, according to Samson. "It's kind of a conglomeration of a whole bunch of cats I know," says a smirking Samson, the owner of a cat named Slap. "I wanted to experiment more with writing and writing from the perspective of things and people that weren't me, that I couldn't be. It was a political exercise in a way, to kind of broaden my horizons."
The album is chock-full of lyrical imagery. Beginning with quite possibly one of the album's best lines -- "I want to call requests through heating-vents, and hear them answered with a whisper, 'No.'" -- Reconstruction Site is similar to a novel's index, with each song a different chapter or week in Samson's life. With the degree of deftness at which he writes, Samson's lyrical dexterity is all-encompassing and difficult as hell to decipher, because underneath each song is a tale of heartbreak, a history book on political revolt, a lost love letter, and a diary entry from a lonely soul. Trying to delve deeper than that is futile.
On another album track, Samson scripts an open thank you note to a humble lover -- "I know you might roll your eyes at this, but I'm so glad that you exist." Then the social consciousness kicks in. On one song, titled "Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)," Samson muses about a hypothetical meal with French philosopher and social critic Michel Foucault, intertwining French lyrics, a chorus of claps, and a rolling bass line into the chorus. "I think there is the theme of reconstruction and redemption and making a useful life with the tools you have at hand," says Samson. "There is a turn towards a more fictional mode of writing on this record. That kind of influenced things in a way and introduced a bit of levity and perspective on songs that maybe weren't there before."
Their set at the Middle East included a number of songs culled from their previous releases -- 1999's Fallow and their follow-up Left and Leaving, released a year later. These albums were licensed and released in the United States by Sub City Records, a subsidiary of Hopeless Records, which raises funds for nonprofit organizations by donating a percentage of album sales to the band's charity of choice. Samson, former bassist of the politically charged punk band Propaghandi, says he doesn't mind The Weakerthans being called political. "I'm just as political a person as I was years ago, and I don't think the fundamentals of my politics have changed at all. Maybe I'm trying to think figure out different ways of expressing them and that's taken some time to figure out how to do. I'm still trying to figure it out. I think they are expressed through the lyrics, the politics are there, they just have to be looked for." Samson also says the band's seven years of touring has also helped him look at politics from a different perspective. "Being in the United States under the Patriot Act, you think about it every once in a while how scary law enforcement have become in this country," Samson says confidently. "It was pretty scary to start with anyway." "We have never had any trouble. But if our skin was slightly darker and we happened to be born somewhere other than Canada, we would be in a trouble. It's something you have to be conscious of."
After a few short moments chatting about all things non-rock, it's easy to imagine Samson as some worldly professor -- the kind of college professor that would quote unknown texts and show up to class in a pair of ripped jeans and a T-shirt. Despite impressive album sales, multiple transnational tours, and devoted legions of fans, Samson is simply a titular rock star -- in title only. It appears that he would be much more at ease on the prairie at his home in Winnipeg, reading books and sipping tea by the fire. It was at his house in which he met with album illustrator and artist Marcel Dzama, a 27-year-old Canadian artist who just happens to live next-door. Dzama's work has been shown throughout the United States and heralded by art critics. Dzama's odd furry animal and nurse napping scene album art adds to the Reconstruction Site's artistic and cutting edge feel. And the future for The Weakerthans remains bright. Samson won't allude to any future plans, but says they'll just see what the future hands them. "It's impossible to say," Samson says. "You never really know. We'll do it as long as we still love doing it. So far we still love it. There are certainly more important things in life than being in a rock band."
By Brendan McCarthy